EMPIRE DAY, CORONATION DAY & THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S NATIONAL LEAGUE
This colourful 1911 Australian Women’s National League fold-out illustrated "A Souvenir of Empire" letter-sheet promoting both Empire Day and Coronation Day, had a printed history of the Union Jack flag within, and the green ½d ‘Bantam’ entire was used at Melbourne and posted to Middle Brighton, Victoria. This was an example of the scarce ½d solo stamp use for the printed matter rate, legal in the British Commonwealth (Figure 1).
The notion of making 24 May (Queen Victoria’s Birthday) a celebration of the British Empire originated in Canada in the late 1890s. An Empire Day for children was started by the head mistress of a Canadian school who proposed that such a day should be celebrated in schools by patriotic exercises, readings and addresses. This idea was followed up in Britain by Reginald Brabazon, the 12th Earl of Meath, who decided to spread the movement throughout the Empire. On 21 July 1902, a cable appeared in the Sydney papers: "The Earl of Meath suggested that an Empire Day holiday should be observed." This idea was championed by the British Empire League of Australia and its president, Canon Francis Bertie Boyce.
Unbeknown to Boyce, Brabazon’s Empire Day was for schoolchildren only. By 1903, Boyce and the league members actively worked for the adoption of an Empire Day in Australia. Prime Minister Alfred Deakin presented a convincing case at the premiers’ conference in 1905 for declaring 24 May as a day of imperial celebration. From May 1905 the premiers agreed to the official observance of the day by all Australians, but there was no agreement as to proclaiming it a public holiday.
As attachment to the empire waned, so too did the significance of Empire Day, and in 1958 its name was changed to British Commonwealth Day. In 1966 it changed again, this time to Commonwealth Day, and the date moved from 24 May to 11 June to coincide with the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. The Coronation Day on the souvenir letter-sheet dated June 22, 1911 referred to the Coronation of King George V.
The Australian Women’s National League (AWNL) was a conservative women’s organisation established in 1904 to support the monarchy and empire, to combat socialism, educate women in politics and safeguard the interests of the home, women and children. It aimed to garner the votes of newly enfranchised women for non-Labor political groups espousing free trade and anti-socialist sentiments, with considerable organisational success. At its peak, it was the largest and arguably the most influential women’s organisation in the country.
By 1914 the AWNL claimed 52,000 members in three states. Closely associated with the United Australia Party, the financial and organisational support of the League was a key factor in the foundation of the Australian Liberal Party in 1944. At this point, the majority of members reconstituted themselves as the Women’s Section of the Liberal Party. The League continued in a much reduced state.
The initial impetus for the formation of the Australian Women’s National League came from moves by the Victorian Employers Federation in 1903 to form a conservative women's political organisation. Janet Lady Clarke was approached to sponsor this new group and held a meeting of three hundred women at her home in August 1903 to discuss forming an organisation. Nothing definite emerged, however, until the following year when another meeting, organised by Clarke's sister, Evan Hughes, was held at the Melbourne Town Hall in March 1904. A provisional committee was elected and the following month the League was formally established and Janet Lady Clarke was appointed first president. The Australian Women’s National League was responsible for production of the illustrated letter-sheet together with the British Empire League in Australia.